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Men's Rock Climbing Shoe Buying Guide

By Matt Bento ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Friday January 4, 2019

You've spent a few nights climbing in the gym, and now you're ready to jump in the car for a marathon drive to Yosemite to climb its hallowed walls, but first you have to pony up sifting through an endless jumble of clown colored, tight-fitting shoes with fast car names seems light years away from scaling huge walls in remote and beautiful areas. They tell you that you have to work hard to achieve your dreams, but they never said anything about shoe shopping. Fortunately, we're here to help. Our buying advice article will help you narrow down the selection so you can spend less time browsing the internet and mailing ill-fitting shoes back to online vendors and more time outside in a screenless, vertical paradise.

Styles of Climbing Shoes


What Type of Climbing Will You Be Doing?

Are you trapped in the flatlands, limited only to gym climbing? Do you crave endless sandstone splitter cracks or steep limestone caves? How about vertical techy granite faces and holdless slabs? A few shoes can do it all pretty well, but there are definitely a few specialists out there. Remember that shoes designed for the steepest most difficult types of climbing aren't as comfortable as shoes made with long multi-pitch routes in mind.

Trad and Crack Climbing


La Sportiva TC Pro climbing shoe
Traditional climbing can involve some techniques, and the duration of the climbs are equally variable. Typically, for crack climbs, you will want a shoe that allows the toes to lay slightly flatter to fit into the crack, like the FiveTen Quantum, Five Ten Moccasym or Scarpa Vapor V. For long multi-pitch routes, you'll want a flatter, looser fitting shoe like the La Sportiva TC Pro. Shoes with a stiffer sole will allow you to stand on edges even when sized larger for comfort. They will also help prevent foot fatigue on longer days. Know that many shoes stretch significantly once worn-in. Unlined uppers are comfortable, but stretch more, and may leave you with a shoe that doesn't perform as well as you would like. We recommend the versatile La Sportiva Kataki for difficult climbs where you need to be able to use your feet in thin cracks and still need edging performance.

Bouldering and Sport Climbing


La Sportiva Futura climbing shoe
As a good rule of thumb, the steeper the climbing gets, the more important it is to have a downturned, performance fit shoe like the La Sportiva Solution, La Sportiva Genius, Scarpa Instinct VS or Evolv Shaman. The models feature a design which directs more power through the toe.

Appropriate sizing for steep, hard climbing varies from shoe to shoe. To perform at a very high level, a shoe will be uncomfortable to wear for more than a pitch or two. Our recommendation is to size your shoes appropriately to stay psyched. If all you're focused on is pushing your grade, a tight-fitting, aggressively shaped shoe will work for you. If your comfort is critical to enjoying your experience while on the rock, we'd recommend you size your shoes accordingly, and look for a shoe with a flat shape. Shoes for the steepest styles of climbing are often on the soft side, allowing you to pull yourself into the wall using larger featured holds. For vertical or less than vertical climbing, it's better to go with stiffer, more supportive shoe as you balance all of your weight on your big toe. Specialized shoes in this category tend to be on the upper end of the price range.

Gym Climbing and Starting Out


La Sportiva Tarantula
There are probably several schools of thought regarding how to choose your first pair of climbing shoes. Our recommendation is to do your homework — and this buyer's guide is a great place to start! Know what your local crags offer, or if you'll primarily be climbing in a gym. This will help you look for a shoe that is appropriate for what you're planning to do. Often, new climbers get put off by uncomfortable shoes; this is unnecessary.

Look for a solid all-arounder; something like the Scarpa Vapor V or Evolv Defy are versatile enough to let you explore various types of climbing (check out the climbing shoe reviews for ideas). Often, it is wise for a new climber to purchase inexpensive shoes because bad footwork will wear them out quickly. The La Sportiva Tarantula or Evolv Defy Black are great options. By the time you need a replacement, you may have learned something and will be ready to upgrade to a pricier, higher performance shoe.

Typically, inexpensive, entry-level shoes won't climb as well — but this is not a hard and fast rule. If you find the right shoe, forking out a little extra cash is worth it to have something that you can grow with, and that won't hold you back. Irrespective of the price, the shoe needs to be comfortable. Not grandma's slippers comfortable, but something you can easily tolerate wearing for a while.

For gym climbing, get whatever suits your climbing ambitions. We often size tight and aggressive for steep routes and bouldering and maintain a flatter, looser fit if you're new to climbing, cruising, or just getting some exercise.

Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.
Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.

Fit Considerations


Aggressive Shape


Downturned toes like the La Sportiva Genius or Evovl Shaman are everywhere these days. The more downturned a shoe, the more your toes bunch up in the front. Sizing downturned shoes loosely will mean that you have extra material on top of your foot where your arched toes should be. When you climb in an oversized shoe, that excess material can bunch up, both getting in the way and making the shoe less comfortable. If you're in the market for down-turned shoes, remember to keep them snug. That doesn't mean they have to hurt, but they should be tight enough to perform for you.

Tightness


There is a lot of subjective information out there regarding how you should size your shoes. For sport climbing and bouldering, there is a pretty strong correlation between the difficulty of the climb and your shoe size: as the number grade of the climb increases, the number of your shoe size decreases correspondingly. Shoes like the Scarpa Instinct, Butora Acro and La Sportiva Genius have a particularly tight feel and perform better because of that snug fit. However, there is a limit to an increase in tightness increasing performance. If your feet hurt so much that you don't want to, or can't climb, you've gone too far. Tight shoes also work for sport climbs and bouldering because you tend not to be on the rock for very long.

On multi-pitch climbs, whether sport or trad, you'll want to size your shoes more loosely. Especially for trad climbing, having a flatter-toed shoe will benefit you when climbing cracks. You can compensate for a slightly larger size by choosing a shoe with a stiffer sole. Even on longer multi-pitch sport climbs, a less aggressive shape (less downturned, lower asymmetry) will keep your feet from getting thrashed, with a relatively minimal diminishment in performance.

Again, doing some research will go a long way for you. Before you buy, decide what type of climbing you'll mostly be doing with the shoe, try on several and size them accordingly. A few things to consider: unlined shoes stretch more over the lifetime of the shoe, and can lose performance. Half sizes matter, particularly in climbing shoes. A slightly larger shoe won't impact your climbing very much at all and can make a world of difference regarding comfort.

A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. I f crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side  the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.
A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. I f crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side, the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.

Stretch


The shoe that you take out of the box the first day you climb with it will not be the same after wearing it for a while. All shoes stretch, some more than others, so it is important to size your shoes to account for how they will feel after they wear in.

Leather shoes, like the La Sportiva Skwama or La Sportiva TC Pro, stretch more than synthetic shoes, so take that into account when making a purchase. However, leather shoes that are lined stretch very little but will mold themselves to your feet to some extent. How much do you size leather shoes down to accommodate for stretch? That depends a lot on the brand and model, and there will be a little trial and error here. In general, to get the right fit from your unlined leather shoe, size them a little tighter, and expect them to be mildly uncomfortable, with the discomfort decreasing as they wear in. The result should produce a comfortable shoe. Unlined slippers like the Five Ten Moccasyms and Evolv Addicts can stretch up to a size and a half. Synthetic shoes don't stretch out much at all, so make sure they are fairly true to size when you buy.

Gathering a little information on the shoe you are going to buy will help you make this decision. What does the manufacturer say about the shoe? What materials were used to construct the shoe? What is the design of the shoe? For example, a lot of shoes feature rubber on top of the toe for hooking, which prevents the shoe from stretching as much. These are all proper questions to ask and will help guarantee you stay stoked with your decision.

The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.
The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.

Brand and Sizing


Sizing is the biggest crux when purchasing climbing shoes, especially if shopping online. Go out and try on various brands and sizes before you buy, if you can. Evolv, FiveTen, and Butora run small, now making it possible to size your rock shoes the same as your street shoes. La Sportiva and Scarpa are very consistent but require a little testing to learn what their sizing means. For us, it means we buy these European brands one size to one and a half size down from our street shoe size. We had to size the long, narrow Tenaya shoes two full sizes down from our streets shoe size before our toes were snug against the front of the shoe.

Rubber Stickiness


The difference in rubber preference stratifies opinion more than any other aspect of climbing. As a rule, rubber that is stickier is usually softer and less durable, and less sticky rubber is typically harder and more durable. Really soft rubber that is ultra-sticky will wear out fast. It also gets pocked or fish-scaled quickly and tends to slide off edges. Harder rubber holds an edge longer but doesn't function as well when you paste your foot on the rock. Consequently, we tend to use different rubber types for various applications. Softer rubber for high-performance sport and bouldering shoes will typically work better for everything other than steep edges. When just starting out as a climber, or if you're looking for an all-day shoe, harder, more durable rubber will work better.

Laces, Velcro, and Slipper


There are three main types of tightening system: Velcro strap(s), lace-ups, and slippers (usually elastic). Lace-up shoes are the most adjustable, and typically provide the most uniform, customizable fit for your rock shoes. All those strings make them a little slower to put on and take off. Because of this, we tend to choose lace-ups as all-around/multi-pitch shoes, where we put them on at the start of the climb and take them off at the end. Velcro shoes go on and off easier, and some tighten almost as well as lace-ups. For sport, bouldering, or gym climbing, Velcro shoes are exceptional because of the number of transitions between street shoes and rock shoes that you make in a day. They work well on multi-pitch days too, if you want to pop the velcro for a little relief at the belay. Slippers are usually the most sensitive and comfortable shoes out there; they are normally unlined, which means they stretch out more. This makes them more comfortable but also decreases their performance. They are very easy to take off and make great gym or bouldering shoes.

Laces wear out, get torn up by cracks, and get turned into rappel anchors (don't do that). Just be ready to replace them when they start to look worked. Velcro will get mucked up if you leave it open when you're storing the shoes. Keeping the velcro closed when you're not using your shoes will also help maintain the shape of the shoe longer. Tip: your friend's toothbrush (or the one you use to clean holds) can be used to brush out the velcro if it's starting to look gummy.


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